Sunday, August 30, 2009

Grandpa Cake

Part of my upbringing included a certain eschewing (Don't you love that word? It sounds like I might want to go "eschew" on a brownie...) of Liberalism and for all that it stands. For example, certain subjects in the liberal arts were not considered worthy of one's attention (especially if they were courses taken at a "liberal" northeastern college), there was an unspoken equation of freethinking with a complete deconstruction of society (and complete Godlessness), that being even vaguely "arty" was a bad thing, and that the Grand Pooh-bah of Liberals was Ted Kennedy (OK, well, perhaps that is the only real truism here).

However, despite my love for these family members of mine and even some friends who chose to be so close-minded, I was able to mature into my own person and draw my own conclusions about people and politics (while majoring in Art History and English with a master's in historic preservation studies, at two esteemed Massachusetts institutions–how "Liberal Arts" can you get?). In my older years, as with everything else, I'm proud that I've mellowed into having the ability to see people, viewpoints and circumstances–even from politicians–for their humanity, despite the fallible natures that we all share. [This skill is especially useful now that I live in the Bible Belt as here, in many ways, I am experiencing an acute inversion of most everything I've taken for granted in New England over the past thirty-five years. This is both enlightening and infuriating, depending on the day that you ask me.]

Without making this political or too personal, I just want to say that of all the moments in the past few days of the Ted Kennedy memorial, funeral and burial, the most touching were not from statesmen but from his children and grandchildren, those who had the personal fortune to spend time in those quieter hours with their very public politician father and grandfather. Kiley Kennedy, Ted Jr's teenage daughter, said this at her grandfather's burial and it was both descriptive and poignant:
When most people think of Ted Kennedy, they think about the man who changed the lives of millions of people by fighting for better health care. When I think about him, vibrant memories of sailing, laughing, Thanksgiving dinner, talking on the front porch and playing with Splash, come to mind.

To me, all the things he has done to change the world are just icing on my Grandpa cake of a truly miraculous person. You see, my Grandpa was really a kid. If you ever saw him conducting the Boston Pops, that's what he was like all the time with me. He knew how to joke, laugh and have fun like the time we played games with all the cousins at my 14th birthday party. I remember him smiling, playing and dancing that day. And I'll never forget everyone's smile that he had made.

I will always remember the times we spent sailing on Maya when I could tell that he was the happiest in the world, even when he was yelling, "Get that fisherman up!" But what I will miss the most are the times I woke up at 6:30 a.m. and would go to the front porch, where my Grandpa would be sitting with Splash and gazing out to sea. It would be just us on the porch for a while, and we talked and talked. And I would get a feeling that the world was just right. It was me and him sitting on his porch watching a new day unfold as we stared into the sea of freedom and possibilities. I love you so much, Grandpa, and I always will.
I hope every one of us is, or has been, so lucky as to have a "Grandpa cake" of their very own, a person that has made you feel "that the world was just right." I know I have been.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Feeling Plummy

I have always loved plums since I was a little girl but the strange thing is, until last night, I had never baked with them (and still have yet to make plum jam). You might say that last night's inspiration might be from two years of looking at plum-colored wall-to-wall carpeting in this here doublewide. Or maybe it was just from the lingering effects of revisiting a favorite childhood poem, The Sugar-Plum Tree by Eugene Field (doesn't the name "sugar plum" just say so much?), in a recent blog about local produce. But it was even simpler than that: I saw about a dozen black plums, alas not local (with apologies to Barbara Kingsolver), in a crate at Sunny Valley Bulk Foods in Casey County yesterday. I just had to do something with them. (And I bought a lot of other produce, too, for canning projects this week–more about those later.)

As well as a perfectly ripe fresh plum–and that can be a fine line–I enjoy canned plums and their slightly textured skins and their sweet, thick juice. I love plum wine and plum jam and plum jelly. I even love prunes and prune juice. [Have you noticed how some ad person has convinced the prune people to start marketing them as "dried plums"? Check next time you go to the grocery store.] PHOTO: Some of Harvey Hoover's Casey County-grown plums, purchased in early July and enjoyed fresh.

I've also been reading many of Anne Lamott's essays on her faith and spirituality (this is a woman who writes about what I've been thinking about the same subject for some time and I appreciate her irreverent candor) and we'll be reading her writings together at Cupcakes in September. Anyway, my point here is that many of Lamott's book covers brilliantly use church signs as part of their graphic element. I photographed this one the other day in a town nearby. Rather apt, don't you think–to fruit, I mean, and canning season? [And had I been Eve I would have tempted Adam with a plum.]

On Sunday, feeling a bit off and couchy, I caught up with a few Barefoot Contessa programs on Food Network that I had recorded earlier in the summer. This year's roster has been focusing on largely easy-to-make simple foods, most of which are featured in Ina Garten's recent cookbook, Back to Basics–Fabulous Flavor from Simple Ingredients [Clarkson Potter: 2008]. Ina Garten is a woman who uses the word "fabulous" like most of us use "uh, huh" and it suits her as she not only is fabulous but has an uncanny knack for being down to earth. She also seems to be an unfussy, relaxed hostess and a lot of fun, not to mention cute and plump and like she might smell of vanilla and cinnamon (and I mean that in the nicest possible way, from one squishy cook to another).

An old Shaker preserve label from Pleasant Hill, Kentucky

On one episode she made "Plum Crunch"–I liked finding my cookbook, one of last year's Christmas presents, and following along [I have all of her cookbooks except for her Barefoot in Paris and Barefoot Contessa Parties!] Last night I made her recipe but with some modifications. For one, I had no butter and used margarine (only 1 stick–Garten's recipe calls for 2 sticks of butter in the topping)–horrors!–and cut the sugar by half in the topping–this was also for dietary reasons. I was also too lazy to chop up walnuts so threw in a bit more oatmeal. Garten makes her topping with a food processor but I find that too fussy (unless using very cold butter, then it is just easier) so I used my hands to make the crumble. I also had no creme de cassis liqueur, which Garten said enhances the plum flavor, so added just a few tablespoons of Grand Marnier instead. With the addition of the flour to the fruit, the mixture gets nice and thick and with a jam-like flavor. We did not miss the full amount of sugar, or butter, that had been called for in the recipe. Also, the plums were still a bit firm and not overly ripe but probably a day from being ripe–and still quite tart. That didn't matter as they cooked down nicely, were not watery, and their full plumminess shined forth.

I found this recipe to be reminiscent of a warm "plum crumble" I used to enjoy on occasion at the dining hall of Ifor Evans Hall in Camden Town when I attended the University of London for a year back in 1982-83. Slathered with pouring custard, even if likely prepared from Bird's Custard mix, it was bliss. [Now with our infusion of fresh eggs from our own hens, next time I make something like this, diet or not, I will make my own homemade version of pouring custard–I truly think it is ambrosia.] Instead, we topped our dishes of crumble with some low-fat Stonyfield French vanilla yogurt–not a bad substitute, really. I also think you could use just about any stone fruit, or even sliced apples, in place of the plums with great success.

Plum Crunch (revised from the Barefoot Contessa's recipe here)
  • 3 pounds, more or less, plums (I used about 10 black plums)
  • 1-1/2 cups light brown sugar, lightly packed
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons Grand Marnier
  • 1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/8 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup oatmeal (plus another hand full)
  • 1 stick margarine (OK, you can use butter)
Set oven to 375 degrees. Slice plums and mix in large bowl with sugar, flour and liqueur. Pour into good-sized greased baking dish (round or flat–I used a 2-quart Pyrex dish).

Make topping by mixing all ingredients in same bowl with your hands, until butter is size of peas. Scatter evenly over fruit mixture.

Bake for 45-50 minutes until nice and bubbly. You will want to cool it a bit before serving.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cupcakes Turn Two!

Some of my readers–old and new–might not be aware that for two years I have been a "Cupcake" since forming a book group–actual and virtual–with two dear friends (and several "groupies," for lack of a better word) back in New Hampshire. Lately we've been a bit stagnant in our collective reading or at least not taking much time to comment about it at our blog Cupcake Chronicles (which is actually because "Cupcake Chronicles" was already taken). However, it is summer and life happens and sometimes we just lose steam.

I don't know what I'd do without these two friends of mine. We became a collective of friends because of The Pantry and because of Edie: I had met Edie through the school our boys attended and she introduced me to "Peaches," who has the best historic and operational pantries ever (plural) and that because of her generosity are in my book. They've also been with me through a lot of transition and turmoil, as well as great times, and their collective friendship, humor and love of books (and food) is so important to me in my individual journey. We talk or email about everything and no subject is off limits. We have even taken two "field trips" together (in Akron, Ohio and Asheville, North Carolina). I've said it before but when someone "gets you" and loves you–lumps, bumps and all–that is a precious gift, indeed. PHOTO: The leftover German Chocolate cupcakes made by "Peaches" for another event were what prompted the name for our book club and website at our first meeting of the "Talking Cupcakes" at Edie's on August 17, 2007, for which we read novels by Julia Glass.

Yesterday, August 17, was our two-year anniversary as a book group and today, as it turns out, is National Cupcake Day (although there might be a bit of discrepancy about that). So have a cupcake with someone you love and read a good book while you're at it. If you want to follow along with our books from the past two years–and future (although we are presently reevaluating that future as a group)–please join us at Cupcake Chronicles. (We even post the occasional silly item or recipe.)

In sum, maybe you can help make our "terrible twos" not so "terrible." (I almost want to plead, like Peter Pan did with his audience to save Tinkerbelle, "if you believe in Cupcakes, read our blog!")

In the meantime, Happy Birthday to the Cupcakes!


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Feeling Broody

The Speckled Sussex has kept its instinctive quality to brood where it has been bred out of so many other breeds of chickens.

Broody: I've always known the expression especially from when I was pregnant and have a husband who was, more or less, raised working on other people's farms. I was raised on one, too, more or less, in the summers, and then year round, but by that time my grandparents had a much diminished supply of livestock and by the time I was a teenager we were down to a few ponies, some dogs and various cats. In our somewhat Puritanical-strained household, all adjectives describing fornication or anything remotely to do with it were not exactly bandied about so it wasn't until much later that I learned the term.

This passage is from the marvelous, funny and unsentimental memoir, The Egg and I, of life with chickens and raising them alongside her husband, by **Betty MacDonald. She pauses for a rare bit of sentiment that also defines the essence of my childhood farm summers with our picnic lunches under the apple trees and around the few animals that my grandparents still raised–a flock of ducks, some geese, chickens for meat, and a calf or two (usually named "Mr. Peabody" after a friend of my grandfather's):
Prior to life with Bob my sole contact with baby chickens had been at the age of eleven. Lying on my stomach in our hammock which was swung between two Gravenstein apple trees in the orchard by the house in Laurelhurst, I pulled out grass stems, at the tender white part and watched Layette, Gammy’s favorite Barred Rock hen, herd her fourteen home-hatched fluffy yellow chicks through the drifting apple blossoms and under the low flowering quince trees. This sentimental fragment of my childhood was a far cry from the hundreds and hundreds of yellowish, white, yeeping, smelly little nuisances which made my life a nightmare in the spring.
"Feeling broody" is the state of wanting to have babies and make a nest and Layette was clearly allowed to let nature take its course and do her business as a mother, unstopped. Most of us have feathered a nest from time to time: whether our own, or in preparing a nursery for a new baby, or, good grief, in the full scale cataloguing of household books and closet-hoeing (yup, been there-done that with my first child and I've never been so organized since)–a complete and total "nest fest." Even as recently as a few years ago, in my early 40s, in what was retrospectively the start of perimenopause, I had what I call a distinctive "baby lust": I wanted to hold them, smell them, have them! [But reason prevailed and sometimes reason has its place.]

Yesterday when I let our chickens out in the mid-afternoon (which is really too early if you want them to finish laying eggs in the hen house first), I watched one of our Speckled Sussex hens wander into the open garden gate. [Our garden was a disaster this summer and wasn't helped by me being away for two weeks in June–so I've turned the hens into it.] She was making the oddest sound–part contentment, part strangely guttural–that I hadn't yet heard in the vast repertoire of chicken music. After a few minutes I realized she had hunkered down in a spot of tall grass (yes, the garden is that weedy right now!).

I went to pick her up to see if she was alright and she let me. There below her were three eggs. I wasn't sure if she had just laid them or if she had returned to a spot where she'd been laying these past few days. When I went to shut the chickens in at dusk–after they'd already filed into the hen house on their own–I noticed one more egg amongst the clutch of three. I decided, against my own motherly nature, to bring them in the house as they were very small eggs and I'm not even sure if they are fertile (although given the randy antics of Stew Standish they likely are–and as Jay Rossier notes in his excellent book, Living With Chickens [The Lyons Press: 2002] "chicken sex is short and not sweet"). As the chickens are just starting to lay, at 20 weeks and counting, we are getting four or so a day in different sizes and colors (so I know at least one of the five Aracaunas is laying). By the end of the month I expect more like twenty-five a day until the days really shorten this winter (one reason to place your chicken house in a well-lit southern-exposed area: like most humans, chickens need sunlight to be happy and productive). PHOTO: Chickens also do other instinctive things, like take dust baths to ward off the mites and lice that are naturally attracted to their feathers.

Before I snatched up the eggs, I had consulted my chicken books and the Internet, of course, for what to do with a broody hen. It seems that there are two schools of thought: one is to isolate the hen immediately and put them in a pen with no straw or anything, or boxes, to discourage nesting–kind of like a "home for unwed mothers." Well, that just rankled me and I thought about how it is against their nature to do such a thing. Other people say, hey, if you want to extend your flock, by all means, encourage the broody hens because they will be good mothers and may even adopt other eggs that you want to hatch. However, another book said that a broody hen is likely to lay a clutch of eggs that will hatch into other broody hens, so think twice about it unless you happen to want a lot of mother hens–and their chicks–around. I think I know enough about breeding to know that the chicks would not be true to their mother but a cross between a Barred Rock and a Speckled Sussex–well, or a little banty rooster who is now in the mix but he seems to keep his distance from all of them, probably out of self-protection.

We will soon be coming into the cooler months and while we have warm, often summery, autumn months and temperate winters, with the occasional short-lived wintry spell, here in Kentucky, I don't think this is the time to be encouraging more chickens–even though we are down about 10 total from our original batch of 37 chicks. Perhaps in the springtime. [And yet, August seems the hottest month in Kentucky and a clutch of eggs only takes 20-21 days to hatch. But then you have to keep Mamma and her chicks away from the others until the chicks are a bit bigger–and we're getting more meat birds in mid-September.] I also read, to my surprise, that the instinct for brooding has been bred out of certain varieties like the Rhode Island and New Hampshire Reds and the Plymouth Barred Rocks so that in the larger, egg laying poultry houses, this situation is virtually non-existent. However, the rarer breeds, like the Speckled Sussex (which is a beautiful bird and quite friendly), have kept this trait and good on them because it is their natural instinct to do so. Broodiness, as it happens, can also be catchy among chickens so if you want eggs to eat and/or sell, you have to try to nip this tendency in the bud. And, you can caponize a rooster so it isn't fertile (although there are few around who can, or are willing, to do this any more). Chickens, unlike wandering pets, really shouldn't be neutered. PHOTO: Chickens naturally want to be up on things, like porches or railings or in this case, our garden bench. It is part of their roosting instinct and what they will do at night when they sleep.

An image by Walter Crane for the poem, "My Mother," by Ann Taylor (and reissued in 1910). You can read it here where you can also see more illustrations from the book.

Of course, all of this got me thinking about motherhood in general–the argument for small numbers of children vs. larger broods (if I hear any more about Jon and Kate Plus 8, a show I've never even watched, and their antics, or the Octo-Mom, I think I'll scream!). How in China the amount of children you have is limited by the government, how here it would seem to now be a case of those fervently for large amounts of children vs. those who are just as self-righteous in their choice of one or, God forbid, two. With the common rhetoric it would seem that any amount above four is really pushing it. Three is acceptable. Four is borderline. [When I was pregnant with Henry my husband ran into an old acquaintance at the doctor's office. After greeting each other and talking about why we were there, this man said, "If you have more than two children, I'll never speak to you again." My husband was quick to note, "But Mr. None-of-Your-Business (not really what he called him), you had five children!" He blustered: "Well, it was different then...we didn't have the population explosion that we do now."]

But what makes people take license to be inappropriate just as they go up and pat the bulging tummies of pregnant mothers? Is it more than a visceral reaction to concerns about the environment, or something else? Why do some of us rankle when we see a large family, even one that can sustain itself by their own means, income or productivity? Few of us have read Margaret Sanger on the subject so perhaps it is something more primal, like being repulsed by the thought of women pumping out babies like eggs in a clutch. Why do people make such inappropriate remarks about a Mama and her large brood following her around in a grocery store? IMAGE: Chicks are also a symbol of fertility and new life at Easter, as depicted in this old postcard, and perhaps it is the power of fertility that both scares and attracts us.

My great-grandparents and their brood in Akron, Ohio, c. 1908: from left to right, Irene, John, Willard, Gertrude (next to my Grandpa James Penfield), F.A. (Franklin Augustus) holding baby Franklin, and Virginia.

We once were a nation of large families–in part because of a lack of birth control or education but also because it was a time when many hands were needed on a farm. My maternal grandmother came from a family of nine, albeit a very privileged family, with staff, in suburban New Jersey and she and my grandfather went on to have six children (mostly supported by their New Hampshire farm). My paternal grandfather, even more privileged, was one of seven children (one died in infancy). His father had been one of nine children, born and raised on a farm in the Ohio countryside. I can attest to the reality that a large family does not mean an impoverished, uneducated one. I'm willing to even wager that those in large families of the past–and today–might have even received more good and positive attention than of smaller families today where we can often be in our own little bubble worlds, further so by our computers, cell phones and portable music. Children in large families learn, at an early age, that they are part of a team that must work together to share and negotiate. Of course, anyone could argue the merits, and disadvantages, of families large and small.

In literature, large families were most often portrayed as a big, rollicking happy bunch like Margaret Sydney's The Five Little Peppers series and Cheaper by the Dozen, also made into a movie and later a remake (or my favorite family movie from my childhood, Yours, Mine and Ours starring Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball). Like everything else, a large brood should be a personal choice and I have nothing but admiration for those who can succeed in doing so without troubling the taxpayers. Of course, among the Mennonites and Amish, large families are just the way it is. A good friend of mine was one of almost twenty children–they adored their mother while their father was more distant and virtually uninvolved. She is still close with all of her siblings and they are all leading productive lives. I have seen the pros and cons of large families, that's for certain, and in a way I am very envious of them because I do not have a big, happy extended family and haven't for many years. A child of divorce tends to be insecure about such things and long for what they've never had. But I have reconciled that reality and am determined to create it within my own brood.

Then there is Flora Poste, the young orphaned English heroine of Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm [1938] who liked everything tidy and set out to do so at the rambling, oversexed, slovenly farmstead of her relatives in the countryside, the Starkadders [think a cross between a Thomas Hardy or a Brontë rural genre novel, with the witty dialogue of P.J. Wodehouse, with a bit of Jane Austen, and you have the essence of Cold Comfort Farm–great movie, too, from 1995]:
"You see, Mary...unless everything is tidy and pleasant and comfortable all about one, people cannot even begin to enjoy life. I cannot endure messes."
Later Flora asks one of the Starkadders about a suitor for Elfine's attentions:
"'Ay–blast un fer a capsy, set up yearling of a womanizer.'" The reply came clotted with rage, but behind the rage were traces of some other and more obscure emotion; a bright-eyed grubbing in the lore of farmyard and bin, a hint of the casual lusts of chicken-house and duck pond, a racy, yeasty, post-toasty interest in the sordid drama of man's eternal blind attack and woman's inevitable yielding and loss.
Flora sought out to tidy up the procreation of the inhabitants of the farm and yard, as much as she did the direction of their lives. Believe me, there are many days I wish I were a little more "Flora" myself and she does have a good theory about why we should be tidy–and there are times when a farmyard and a household just are not. [Here is an excellent book review site (Stuck-in-a-Book) that I just came across with more about Cold Comfort Farm–its writer's profile, Simon Thomas, reads: "...I'm a Christian-bookoholic-vegetarian-twin, just finished a Masters in 20th Century English Lit. at Oxford University. Wherever I am, you can guarantee I'll be Stuck-in-a-Book!"]

There is also the mothering instinct. Flora didn't really seem to have it in Gibbons' novel, although she was young and was set out on information-gathering for her first novel that she planned to write one day. And she was mothering, although not ready to have children–or a husband–herself. Like chickens, I believe that some of us were born to be broody and others were not. Just because we have the biology does not make us necessarily fit for the task. IMAGE: I believe this painting is either by John Singer Sargent or Mary Cassatt of the late 19th century school of American painting in Boston.

Some women are excellent mothers with this admirable knack of multitasking beyond belief and the ability to be there for each child or to help the children help themselves. And the best are those who can do that without being martyred and having to do it all themselves (it's called effective delegation). I am somewhere in between. I try my darnedest but realize my limitations. I am trying to raise my children in a non-Pollyanna way but one that is also somewhat protective while fiercely humorous and always forgiving. Validation is the key, I've found, as is allowing your child to be who they are with a respect for boundaries–a respect for the individual in the family unit while also a respect for others–without keeping them from the world. You also have to allow a bit of mess to creep in the door from time to time and decide whether or not it is more important to strive for a happy household or to insist on perfection at all times. Fortunately, my husband picks up where I leave off and vice versa. Our children also see us, warts and all, and some would argue that might not always be a good thing. But it's the real thing and at some point they will have to live in the world, too.

So back to my broody Speckled Sussex which caused all of this philosophizing in the first place. For now I feel it is important to enact an overriding farm yard government birthing policy over my hens, even if it feels like Communist China. I want them to produce eggs to eat and not more babies right now. In the spring I might be more apt to let them do their thing on their own. When you really sit down and analyze it, the whole egg issue is a much greater one: we are eating, in essence, undeveloped chickens and that's not only gross when you take pause but a whole other philosophical realm that I'd rather not dwell in!

**As well as The Egg and I, a New York Times bestseller in 1945, Betty MacDonald is also the author of some of my favorite childhood books about Mrs. PiggleWiggle and her magical cures for childhood ailments. They are all back in print and all of her books are laugh-out-loud funny and your children will love Mrs. PiggleWiggle and her stories, too. Another sideline is that the characters of Ma and Pa Kettle originated in The Egg and I, and, as well as the original book-to-film, went on to have many movies about their adventures throughout the 1950s, starring the great character actress Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride.

Sadly, in my husband's eyes, I will never quite live up to the raucous farm wife portrayed by Miss Main (and her movie image, that he would prefer, is less slovenly in demeanor than how she is portrayed in the book version of The Egg and I). But I do try. For example, I wear an apron with a handy rag and am often adjusting my bra as she seems to do. In the book MacDonald casually notes that Ma and Pa Kettle had fifteen children for whom Ma "baked fourteen loaves of bread, twelve pans of rolls, and two coffee cakes every other day..."

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Highway 127 Yard Sale: A Photo Essay

Eli snaps a pic of Momma with a vintage Rockingham-style English teapot found at a large yard sale gathering between Russell Springs and Jamestown, Kentucky along Highway 127. A $5 bargain that I was glad to make.

This is our third year of enjoying the fruits of the Highway 127 Yard Sale and the most fun and rewarding yet. I wanted to share some of my recent finds here with you and this is certainly my longest blog ever in terms of photo content–with accompanying text–so keep scrolling down so you don't miss anything! Two years ago Temple came down for a quick visit with our son Eli to look at the Kentucky ridge farm property that would become ours a mere a few weeks later, complete with comfortable doublewide (albeit "temporary"–my idea, as it was clean and well-kept–emphasis on was clean–and I knew it would serve us well for a few years before building our dream farmhouse). PHOTO: My husband holds a scythe wrench that he was delighted to find in a pile of old tools for a few dollars–he's been looking for one forever.

They drove up and down Highway 127 from Danville to Russell Springs, Kentucky, finding a few treasures along the way. They happened to be here over the first weekend of August, the annual time for the world's longest yard sale that spans the 654 miles from West Unity, Ohio to Gadsden, Alabama. Many people set up earlier in advance of the weekend for the inevitable early birds along the way. PHOTO: An old 7Up® sign on a store in Dunnville, Kentucky. You could buy it if you wanted to take it off the front of the building.

Last summer we had just moved here permanently, and having just packed up a houseful of stuff, I wasn't as keen but I did hit a few of them with our visiting friend Linda and my new friend Anna (who has the largest collection of salt & pepper shakers that I've seen to date). As most readers and friends know by now, I break for antique malls and used bookshops. I will also break for yard sales if they meet the following criteria from a cursory glance from the car window (whether driving or as a passenger):
  • If a yard sale has even five feet of clothes hanging up or lots of plastic bins stacked up, I won't stop. The only place I'll browse for used clothing is in clean, used clothing shops, unless I find vintage items.
  • I avoid colorful plastic crap (or CPCs) at all costs. This usually means someone is trying to sell a lot of cheap, plastic junk from their kids' bedrooms or play rooms. Thankfully, we no longer have need for all of that stuff you have to schlep around for years like car seats and play gyms and portable cribs. Even when we did, we wanted to make sure it worked and that it was clean–not to mention that it met safety standards–so we generally bought new or were grateful to get good hand-me-downs. [That said, if our boys are along for yard sale "grabs" we do allow the occasional bag of Star Wars® action figures just to keep the peace.] So I try to stick with wood and glass and paper and crockery and (vintage) fabric as much as possible–and after all, aren't we trying to make this a PCB-free world?
  • I will stop for anything rusted, metal, utilitarian or funky-looking (excepting metal tools or tractor or car parts, although my husband will break for the tools and tractor bits). Seeing a yard full of metal porch chairs or old tin ware or anything remotely familiar out of an old barn or shed usually means that someone just cleaned out their old barn or shed. Those buildings usually have the best stuff in them (apart from kitchens and pantries, of course!).
  • I will stop if I see a lot of old-ish crockery, vintage kitchen items, old baskets or woodenware and clear glass Pyrex-type stuff (this is often harder to determine from the road). You just never know and these things have to be more carefully examined.
  • Hanging vintage tablecloths and linens also a plus as are funky old signs, and vintage garden and laundry stuff.
Perhaps that sounds like elitist yard sale snobbery, but there it is. Besides, you can't stop at them all and with the many offerings along Highway 127–and I can't even imagine driving along the entire 654 miles of it–you have to be somewhat choosy given time constraints. I'm sure I've missed some gems by this mode of scouting but it is mostly foolproof.

I love old rusty porch furniture that's never been painted and was surely tempted by these offerings...but you should see our storage shed right now. So I took a photo instead. And it's funny to think that people buy "primitive" stuff now that is made in China or Taiwan and sprayed with a faux "rust" paint. One day all of my funky old mismatched porch chairs will be lined up on a wrap-around farmhouse porch. One day...


Don't you think every home needs a pair of Hawaiian-style "Kon-Tiki" wooden salad servers hanging on their wall–yes, all three feet of them!? Don't worry, even for $1 for the set, I was happy to let them stay there–another friend of mine wasn't so lucky. She received a set from another friend for a gift a few years back (and yes, they are both Cupcakes). I was tempted to snag these to send to the cheeky giver but wasn't sure how I'd mail them. They also would have made a great wedding gift prank: "Oh,, they're just what we've always wanted!"

Mushroom canister sets, in wild colors, were really big in the early 1970s (you know, to accent all of those "Harvest Gold" and "Avocado" kitchen appliances). Something tells me that they might not ever be popular again as you see way too many at yard sales these days–and this is coming from a woman who collects gnomes!

Speaking of gnomes, I left this little guy right where he was and now feel tremendously guilty about it, especially because he was the only gnome I saw (well, no, only one of two) at any yard sales last week. Maybe it was his price which I've now forgotten. [Do you think he is supposed to be cleaning up after that turkey?]


Some tin kitchen purchases: the famed Leaning Tower of Cake Tins (4 for a buck) and below a "Paul's Pies" pie tin (5 bucks) from back when you used to put down a deposit on a "boughten pie" (as my husband would say–yup, he's kind of an antique himself).

A gathering of vintage green kitchen things from the 1930s: each item for $6 or even less. There was no neeed to haggle as I was the one getting the bargain right off the top.

Did I need this mug trio, three for $1? The short answer would be "No." They are of the "Northern Fruit" pattern, still being made in Maine at Monroe Salt Works–a pottery company from where I might collect if I didn't have so many other older patterns I go for (well, and maybe if they had a chicken/rooster pattern–oops, they do...I also really love their "Chair" and "Crow" patterns...well, can't possibly do it! Maybe there will be a vintage and discontinued pottery shop in Heaven as well as old bookshops–do you think yard sales, too?). They're also really big and "muggy." Priced new they are now $24 each (OK, I just checked–that's not why I bought them, although good to know!). The woman who sold them said that her mother-in-law had given them to her. I just hope, for daughter-in-law's sake, that M-I-L doesn't read my blog. [But come to think of it, my own mother would love them...]

FABRIC!! She's gotta have it! Why? In case she ever learns to sew. In the meantime "she" can't resist a good bargain like 6 yards of the pretty floral pattern, below, for several dollars and, above, a whole mess of vintage 1950s garden-themed fabric for $2. Both will make great aprons and after that I'll give the extra floral fabric to my friend Anna for her quilting. And yes, I do hope to learn to day. [In the meantime I know some excellent Mennonite seamstresses-for-hire.]

I truly believe in my heart that every home needs a Shrine to Mrs. Butterworth–yes, I bought the graduated trio of glass syrup Mrs. Butterworth's® jars for $10 billed as "Aunt Jemima" (Hey, some day they'll be worth as much as those green glass prune juice jars from the 1950s or old brown glass Clorox® bottles!). This was one of those silly sentimental purchases. I have very fond memories of having waffles with Mrs. Butterworth's® syrup at one of my mother's dear friend's–Mrs. Emily Wirth–house down the street in Akron. She made the best scones EVER (I've tried to replicate her recipe for years as our copy was accidently thrown out and sadly, Mrs. Wirth died of cancer in the late 1970s) and many other goodies. She was also one of the kindest and most authentically Christian women I have ever met (and she and her family helped my mother, and all of us, through a few hard years)–a true strong, but loving, matriarch. Anyway, whenever I've seen a Mrs. Butterworth® syrup bottle in the past 35 years it has always reminded me of Emily Wirth. She used to fill her empty jars with sand, dress them in handmade aprons and bonnets, and use them for door stops. (Not a bad idea for future gift-giving or a pantry door stop.) You could also use them for syrup decanters (and sorry High Fructose Corn Syrup Monster–we've been using real New Hampshire maple syrup now for decades and we are even importing it to Kentucky). I also picked up that vintage appliqued "Mammy" tea towel earlier in the week for $1.

Meanwhile, the painted Mrs. Butterworth was only $2 (it might be a stretch, but I see it as "authentic 20th century American kitchen folk art"). And who knows? Maybe the little Mrs. Butterworth ladies will start cleaning my house one evening while we're asleep. Oh, Mrs. Butterworth! I love your plump, apron-clad, warm and gooey, amber-glassy, syrupy self! For shame that you've been shape-shifted into a plastic vision of your former kitchen goddess-ness (or that some poor dealer mistook you for "Aunt Jemima")! Their loss, our gain.

This trio of bowls is one of many popular styles from the early years of Robinson Ranbsottom Pottery, an old pottery company that sadly closed a few years ago. It was located in Roseville, Ohio, just south of Zanesville, and also has ties to some of my clay pipe-selling ancestors (no, not the Native American kind, but the kind used in sewers), The Robinson Clay Products Company in Akron, Ohio (that merged with Ransbottom in 1920). They also made lovely utilitarian stoneware. A few years ago we had the opportunity to visit Zanesville and environs for an annual pottery gathering there and we were able to visit the then-operational Robinson Ransbottom Pottery. Sometimes the spark for certain collections is a family association or just pure old-fashioned "remember when?" nostalgia.

Utilitarian kitchen pottery, especially Ohio in origin from the 19th and the first part of the 20th centuries, is my passion and I've been collecting it since the early 1990s. I was beyond delighted to find a perfect set of nesting bowls just south of Liberty, KY. I checked the three graduated bowls over and not a crack or craze or chip on any of them. I asked the vendor, with whom I'd struck up an enjoyable conversation (another great part of yard sales), why he was asking only $30 for the trio? "It's their color," he said. "That pumpkin color isn't popular now but if they were green or blue or red..." Of course, I'd never seen a set of red bowls of this vintage before and I personally love that pumpkin color, as do many other collectors, so why argue? Also to note that many popular collectibles can easily be forged, such as "vintage" cookie jars. However rare a thing it is to find a set in pristine condition and for this price, these bowls are not forgeries. PHOTO: Bowls marked "USA" with a specific pattern number and slash are most likely early Robinson Ransbottom (c. 1920s-30s and even into the 1940s) before they imprinted R.R.P.Co. and/or "Roseville, OH" on them. Because the pottery bought out Zanesville Pottery and was located in Roseville, pieces are often inaccurately confused with "Zanesville" or "Roseville" collectibles. The company was making and selling pottery like bird baths, flower pots, vases and spongeware bowls up until they closed a few years ago and is sometimes still available here and there.

It was also kind of him to throw in a little blue McCoy bowl, a bit crazed, for $5 (and a free "George Wallace" button–"I can't give them away," he said. "One woman from Alabama said she'd take them away just to crush them into the pavement back home!"). And yup, "it's the real McCoy," as they say.

As I was lingering over this nubby aqua glass and pitcher set at a booth outside of Pikeville, Tennessee, the vendor said "Those glasses just want you to buy them and take them home." I answered, "You know, I think you're right." Not only do they remind me of an icy cold Fresca-in-a-glass in our suburban summers back in Akron in the early 1970s, but I knew they would match my Zanesville aqua/brown Country Fare pottery. I know little about glassware but they seem even more retro than the 1960s but I'm guessing are from that era or even the early 1970s. For $20 for a pitcher and five glasses, it was easy to envision them for lots of iced tea and lemonade-sipping on our porch. The yard sale was just getting started when I found the set so I was even more delighted to find such a bargain. [A week later I found two more glasses like these for .50 cents each at a yard sale in Kentucky.]

If I see a booth at a flea market with neatly pressed and hanging linens, various forms of Ohio pottery from the first part of the 20th century–flower pots and bowls, for example–various tinware and small items, like children's chairs with character, I know I've hit yard sale Nirvana. At our last stop on Sunday at the Boyle County Fairgrounds outside of Danville, KY–just as the sale was winding down and cranky, overheated vendors–many who had camped right by their booths all week–uck–were putting things away to take home, we found just the booth. It was a delight and the couple, from Findlay, Ohio, were the kind of friendly quality dealers that know their stuff, their prices and what their bottom line is. PHOTO: Finds from Findlay: two runs of vintage roller towelling yardage and an old tablecloth. These, along with a graniteware baking dish, totaled $50 but I was happy to pay it as I've been wanting old towel yardage.

None of this overpriced garage junk just heaped onto tables–those are the "dealers" most likely not to take a reasonable offer or even gripe about one. I've tried. "Oh no, that book is rare. You won't find it anywhere else. I have to have $5 for it." You want to say, "No it's actually not that rare, but its jacket is in decent shape, and I really just wanted an extra copy to give to a friend." But why argue? Sometimes you just have to meet their price or be willing to walk away. [My husband actually overheard two "dealers" scoff at a person's reasonable offer of $200 for one of those old Colonial Revival-ish (1960s) hutches that were so common and once ubiquitious in American dining rooms. "You don't know what you're talking about and that offer is just insulting," they said and then continued to throw epithets at the serious buyer. So the woman just turned around and left the booth, as did my husband. And I'm sure the couple will have that hutch for a long time to come.]

So imagine my delight when at the Central-Kentucky Ag Center in Liberty, KY, where there was a mix of excellent booths and some trashier ones, that I came upon four Gladys Taber books for $3 for the set. It was the last day of the sale, before we ended up near Danville–and my second time there in a few days–and I didn't even haggle. I thought it was an excellent price, even if the price stickers had fused to the spines of the lovely book jackets. I already have a few of these books so those duplicates will become gifts (or hey, maybe "In the Pantry" give-aways...). When I grow up I actually aspire to be a combination of Gladys Taber and my alter ego, Della T. Lutes, and maybe a bit of Janice Holt Giles and Betty MacDonald , with a hearty smidge of Shirley Jackson and Anne Lamott thrown in for good measure. [Of the five, only Anne is a very much alive writer whom I thoroughly recommend for all of her wholehearted, and sometimes irreverent, embracing of her own path, motherhood, politics, spirituality and her own Christian faith.]

At that same location, a few days earlier, I had been able to scoff up a pile of vintage tea cloths in excellent condition, as well as a c. 1970s (yup, my mother had one) Tupperware celery holder (which I'll used for cut up veggies). When I went to pay, the woman, a vendor from Indiana, said, "That's $5 for the Tupperware and would $6 be alright for that pile of six linens?" Well, she didn't have to ask me twice.
I clucked at the irony of paying almost as much for a plastic refrigerator container as I was for a pile of exquisite vintage linens in excellent condition. But that's the way of a yard sale.

It is hard, if not impossible, to jury these larger venues–some dealers we spoke with in Tennessee were trying to buy a field together where they could all congregate each year without the "$5 designer clothes" booths and outpourings of cellar junk. [Yes, OK, I am a yard sale snob–there, I've said it!] It is true that the antique and funky-junk hunters like me are drawn to those larger quality groupings and there is greatness in numbers–and even better odds of finding the odd thing that you don't really need, either.

Eli on the prowl. Our boys, and daughter before them, have been raised in antique malls and shops and spent their early years in an old New England home (our daughter in several others before that). I'm glad at least one of them, so far, has developed a passion for collecting and the love of the hunt–for those who are so afflicted you know it is both a blessing and a curse.

The absolute best part of our yard sale escapades over the course of different days last week was spending time with family (and my friend Anna and Eli on one day), seeing what came of the day in other ways (like our day trip altogether to Tennessee), talking with vendors and bumping into friends, and spending an entire day last Friday just with my son Eli (when Temple went back to Tennessee with Henry to pick up some blacksmith equipment). He was such a joy and had certain things in mind to look for, like a particular wrench his Dad had discovered after looking for years, and other things he knows I collect. I owed Eli $20 from a few weeks ago when I was strapped and 45 minutes from the bank (we don't have an ATM card). He emerged from a table with an old children's tool set: "for your grandchildren," he said, "I got it for $20." And he hasn't even touched it even though it is his to do with what he wants. My "little old man" is a man after my own heart. So we had fun looking around together and enjoying the day. He can yard sale with me any time.

PHOTO, right: Henry pauses to refresh on the porch at the "Shady Rest" at a Tennessee yard sale [wasn't that the hotel in Petticoat Junction on TV years ago?] Their classic Southern supper-with-sides menu was also tempting: BBQ ribs, mashed potatoes with gravy ("homemade"), macaroni and cheese, green beans, pinto beans, turnip greens, and cornbread or cheesy bread. We tried some sweet tea and lemonade.

PHOTO, above: Three usable outhouses adjacent to a great yard sale congregation outside of Pikeville, Tennessee. RIGHT: An outhouse postcard that I found amidst a number of other large old souvenir placard-style postcards for .50 cents each near Russell Springs, Kentucky. I collect kitschy outhouse stuff, too, on occasion, for our actual outhouse over at my husband's shop/tractor garage. One day I'll gather it altogether and put it over there to surprise him. BELOW: More touristy postcard placards–bathroom humor is always a hit in my family (with two boys and a husband, what else do you expect?).

An old porch near Pikeville, Tennessee.

Another fun part of yard sale hunting for our family are the backdrops. This was our favorite: an old "homeplace" north of Pikeville, Tennessee. I went inside and photographed the house as best I could–and there was a lot of not-so-great junk inside. (Well not all of it, but it was hard to get around the rooms sometimes.) The house had all of its original wood detailing inside and out and the remnants of its kitchen and summer kitchen in the ell. Old green paint, original to the 1930s most likely, was still on the kitchen walls, framed in horizontal matchboard. The late-19th century woodwork–like the doors, door surrounds and mantels–was top notch.

This old store in Dunnville, KY is seldom open but filled with amazing things. The storekeeper and their family used to live in the part of the building marked by the screen door at right. The owner was selling a lot of the old advertising signage, including this "Drink Coca-Cola" sign for $50. I just had to pass on it, as hard as it was, in all of its rusted, original painted, never touched magnificence. And yes, it was "the Real Thing™" (and the only Coke-related memorabilia–of which there are scads at these sales–that I was actually tempted to buy).

Another favorite find, almost in our own back yard, was an unusual store that Eli and I stumbled upon on our day together. We'd been by it many times before but didn't realize it was still operating. Peggy Tarter has owned and operated this old store in Dunnville, just a few miles into Casey County and in its southern-most settlement, in the classic style of old rural Kentucky general stores, for 51 years. She said her in-laws owned it before that and when she bought it they got it lock, stock and barrel. Peggy reminded me of our friend Hazel Wesley who runs the small store on route 837 in Mintonville, on the eastern side of Casey County over near our ridge (and for sale–believe me, I've been tempted). The shelving and many details in this store are original–and some of the canned goods are decades old, I'm sure. These stores are the real deal and not some manufactured cutsey olde time "General Store." [Casey County is also home to Penn's Store, up in Gravel Switch, America's longest continuously operated historic store in the same family, since 1850.]

One day, perhaps, my husband and I will sell antiques and parts of various collections to support our habit, maybe not along yard sale corridors but in a small shop or other venue. We've been told by most dealers that this is how they got started (and yes, the parallels are many.) In the meantime, I've decided in future years to make a game of it. I will save my antique mall and yard sale fixes for one week only, for the splendor of the Highway 127 yard sale in early August, at the end of our summer before our boys return to school, and I will allow myself so much to spend (given what I spent this year, I'll say $200 tops–hey, it will be part of Ma's future egg money!). PHOTO: Another old souvenir shop postcard placard–chickens are always a hit with me.

I prefer buying old to new with most things and I have many friends who do, too. In this "Great Recession," and with the need to recycle rather than consume more resources, I'd rather buy old and used most any day (or use it up or prepare it myself), but for us it has often been a matter of course. PHOTO: Many people had tables of produce and homemade jams and jellies, like these at the corner of 127 and 910 south of Liberty.

So next year I will take the opportunity to yard sale again, a gift to myself, while mostly just spending some of my "egg money" on holiday or birthday gifts for friends–and even immediate family–who are also fellow antique kitchenish, lineny, cookbooky, rusty old junk, and gnomish collector folks like me. PHOTO: YARD SALE FEET! Desperately Seeking Pedicure! (And note the yard sale "sandal tan.")